Mexican actor/director/writer/ producer Eugenio Derbez “can do anything.”
That’s what Ben Odell, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Derbez’s production company, 3Pas, believes.
“The roles he’s been offered to date are the comedy relief guy,” Odell tells Variety. “The best of Hollywood is the big spectacle movies. Anyone who comes here wants to play in that big sandbox. Let’s see [Derbez] as the ‘bad guy’ in a Marvel movie. It’ll be fun, but he’ll bring that humanity and be scary as shit.”
First, audiences will get to see Derbez — who celebrates the 10th anniversary of groundbreaking comedy “Instructions Not Included” this year — tackle drama in “Radical,” which debuted at Sundance and won the Audience Award. “Radical” follows the true story of Mexican schoolteacher Sergio Juárez Correa, who uses immersive teaching techniques in a border town with failing test scores to inspire his students.
“Radical,” written and directed by Chris Zalla, and produced by Derbez and Odell, will be released Nov. 3 in the U.S. via Paul Presburger and Edward Allen’s Miercoles Entertainment. It is a Participant, Pantelion Films and 3Pas Studios production. The film has also sold to the U.K., Germany, New Zealand and Australia.
Derbez has been bringing stories to English and Spanish-speaking audiences for decades. He and Odell founded 3Pas in 2014 (the same year Variety dubbed Derbez the “No. 1 most influential Hispanic male in the world”), and in 2017 it released hit comedy feature “How to Be a Latin Lover,” starring Derbez. Like Reese Witherspoon’s billion-dollar Hello Sunshine and Brad Pitt’s Oscar-winning company Plan B, 3Pas oversees high-quality fare for the small screen and theatrical distribution, including Apple TV+’s “Acapulco” and Hulu’s “Valet,” while two of 3Pas’ unscripted shows, “LOL” and “De Viaje con Los Derbez,” are Amazon’s two highest-rated series in Latin America.
Born in Mexico City, Derbez shattered stereotypes and showcases the complexity of the Latino experience in his film and TV offerings as well as in his career arc. Moreover, his impact extends to cultural entrepreneurship and social advocacy, as he wants to ensure the future for Latino artists is full and bright.
Odell, who moved to Colombia in the 1990s to write and produce projects, understands the nuance of a business that has neglected the Latino market. But when they began this venture together, his greatest fear was destroying Derbez’s respected reputation. “I felt on my tombstone, it would say ‘The guy who fucked up Eugenio Derbez’s career,’” Odell says. “So far, so good.”
Odell recalls when he first met Derbez: “I was working for Jim McNamara at Telemundo, and he told me about this play on Broadway with this guy Eugenio, and I had to meet him. I saw it and immediately thought he was amazing and so funny. We went out to dinner a couple of days later in Chelsea, and even in 2005, he didn’t know how big his audience was. At the end of the meal, the entire kitchen staff came out to take pictures with him. There wasn’t any social media at that point. In real time, you could see he had so much love here in this country; it was just the beginning of our relationship.”
When I visited Derbez’s Los Angeles residence, he focuses on ensuring the visitors’ comfort and making sure they are wellfed. He’s excited to talk to Variety, and although he recently injured his back, he still stands to greet me despite Odell telling him not to do so. Once we begin, he sits with a pillow holding him up. He’s introverted, which is surprising, considering he’s among the Latino community’s funniest and most outrageous performers. Still, he’s visibly giddy to discuss this moment, when “Radical” is gearing up for its release. (He can discuss his work after receiving a SAG-AFTRA interim agreement.)
Studio executives and producers have labeled him the “funny guy from television,” Derbez recalls. “I keep telling them I can do more.”
Before 3Pas launched, Derbez’s biggest hit stateside was the 2013 dramedy “Instructions Not Included,” which he also directed. It took 12 years to raise the film’s $5.5 million budget. And in 2005, Derbez found no U.S. distributors for the comedy, despite him being the star and creator of “Vecinos,” the No. 1 show in Mexico and with U.S. Hispanics.
But when it was released, it shattered box office records, becoming the highest-grossing Spanish-language film and the fourth-highest-grossing foreign film of all time in the U.S., making over $100 million globally. Remake rights were sold all over the world.
But timing is everything in Hollywood.
It took nine years to get “Radical” made, not because of money, but with Derbez and Odell assessing the best moment for the comedian to make the transition to drama. That moment came on March 27, 2022, at approximately 8:30 p.m. PST, only about an hour after Will Smith slapped Chris Rock on live television, when Apple Original Films’ “CODA,” in which Derbez co-starred with Marlee Matlin and Oscar-winner Troy Kotsur, won the Oscar for best picture.
Suddenly, “it was a different discussion around Eugenio,” Odell recalls about that moment. “And it was time to capitalize.”
When asked whether he sees a positive change in how Latino stories make it to U.S. screens, Derbez reflects: “I felt the barriers were more substantial during COVID. However, one of the good things was audiences around the world started watching us when we were in lockdown. It didn’t matter about the language, and that’s why ‘Squid Game’ was successful. Because I grew up in Latin America, reading subtitles in every movie was part of my life. So we’re not scared of subtitles. I feel here in the U.S., the audience is scared of reading subtitles, like driving and texting at the same time.”
In fact, 3Pas, which develops and produces both Spanish-language and English-language content, has become the most commercially successful production company focused on U.S. Hispanic and Latin American audiences.
As for future 3Pas projects, “We have ‘Un Cuento Chino’ that I want to direct,” Derbez says of the comedy in development. “I want to return to directing because when I did ‘Instructions,’ it wasn’t because I was trying to say, ‘I know better.’ The sense of humor in the U.S. is different. I feel that I’m ready to bring my humor and style to Mexicans, Americans, and the entire world. It’s just a different flavor. I don’t want to make movies like Adam Sandler, Will Smith or Ben Stiller. I would fail. This is my flavor.”
Odell notes, “We share a sensibility. We want to tell the same kind of stories and tell stories that are positive portrayals of Latinos. I grew up with Colombians. I always say, surround yourself with Latinos. You’re going to have a better life. My wife is Colombian, my partner is Mexican, all our employees are Latina, and they’re intelligent and hardworking. We get to make things that we want to see. But it still carries the DNA of everything we care about, and that’s still entertaining.”